How to tell colleagues that they're bad multitaskers?
March 27, 2012 10:53 AM   Subscribe

How do I broach to colleagues that I can tell they're (poorly) multitasking?

I'm doing more and more solo work that involves others. We're 'partners' in producing materials, whether it's print, video, instructional, whatever. Frequently there are meetings - either on the phone or virtually (via skype/acrobat/facetime/etc).

I can tell when people are trying to multi-task. Listening or talking and trying to surf/email etc. Nearly every single person I've ever encountered is abysmal at it.

My question is about etiquette. They're adults (over 30.) How do I tell them, nicely, that they're not giving me their full attention?

The meetings take longer, waste my time, and worst, are less effectual. Yes, you're getting a note that it annoys me. I don't want to be their den mother. More often than not, this group has large egos (they're speakers, teachers and authors.) Direct methods are going to embarrass them; might work once, but not more than that.

I want their full attention, the same way they're getting mine. Yes, there's a question of respect for my time too. Any subversive ideas?
posted by filmgeek to Work & Money (12 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Say,"hey, you seem involved with something else right now. Let me know when you are done." Then walk away and go on with your business. Do it over and over, in the nicest, most understanding way possible. You will train them to focus on you when you are around. By sitting around waiting for them to focus on you, you have allowed them to solidify this behavior. Have mini projects that you can fill your time with as they are learning the new way of behaving around you.
posted by Vaike at 10:59 AM on March 27, 2012 [4 favorites]

This is exceptionally common. In most of my meetings, 50% of the participants are looking at laptops and 100% have a cellphone in their hands.

One plan of action is to make meetings very short and very infrequent. Start on time and enforce hard stops. By making meeting time more rare you'll make it more precious.
posted by 2bucksplus at 11:09 AM on March 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Use the meeting for things that require interaction. Use email or other means for the distribution of information.

Any meeting which requires people to spend a significant amount of time just listening will result in those same people trying to multitask - this is human nature.

In addition, if participants are not engaged, they rightfully think why am I wasting my time on this meeting when this information could have been distributed offline instead - so they won't see multitasking as not respecting you.

Send materials beforehand, ask for questions and comments beforehand and use the meetings for discussion of the areas of contention or confusion.
posted by NoDef at 11:14 AM on March 27, 2012 [12 favorites]

One thing I do on online or phone meetings is include frequent round-robins. I set the stage for the meeting by saying, "if you just needed to hear me talk about (topic), I could send you an email. But we are here to discuss and decide on (topic), which requires all our participation." Then, do it. E.g., you have just introduced a new method for organizing screenshots. Go around and ask each attendee by name: "Steve, what do you think of this method? What problems do you see? Marie, you use screenshots more than any of us-- what are some advantages and disadvantages of this system?" You have to ask questions requiring more than just a yes or no, and you have to start the question with their name, so they 1. hear their name and 2. have to say something or risk looking idiotic in front of the group. The advantage of this also is that you are now running the meeting-- going through the agenda and providing time for discussion; if no discussion, moving on. This gets easier as your team is more aware of how you choose to run meetings-- you expect to get business done and do it quickly.

I think people honestly think they can do multiple things at one time; or, they are in your meeting/webinar and another person interrupts them. I have to remind myself that their lack of attention is not always malicious, and doesn't usually have to do with me and how interesting I am.
posted by holyrood at 11:17 AM on March 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Think about why you're having meetings. Does Joe really need to be there? He knows he doesn't, that's why he's surfing mefi. If he really does need to be there, why? Does he need to make a decision so you all can move forward with Project? Get his input by directly asking him.

No questions addressed to the entire group because that encourages silence. Only questions addressed to specific people, even if they are the same questions addressed to multiple people in turn.

I agree with the comments above that if you're just going to blather on about Project, send an email.

Also, gamify it! There was a recent post about a game where you put all your cellphones on a table and the first one to answer theirs has to pay the tab - in this case, the first one to answer has to buy lunch the next day.
posted by desjardins at 11:26 AM on March 27, 2012

Yeah, you'll do best if the meetings are as short and punchy as possible. People will pay attention to things that involve them directly, and as soon as they get the sense that what they're hearing about is someone else's responsibility, they'll check out until they pick up on an indication that they're somehow involved in what's being discussed.

That's basically just the nature of the thing in a lot of ways, so if you ask people not to multitask during meetings, the only thing that will happen is they'll start pretending to pay attention, which means they will not only not be paying attention but they'll probably resent you for it. Politeness is really about acting like you're interested, not actually being interested. You could probably shame them into the former but it's impossible to get someone to do the latter out of a sense of courtesy.

Keep meetings short, and prepare your info and questions ahead of time. Avoid FYI-type stuff - instead, send out information beforehand and ask everyone by name for their feedback, one at a time. Don't ask questions of the group - they'll be greeted with silence.

As far as the etiquette part of it - honestly, yeah, it's bad etiquette to be checking your phone or surfing the web or whatever during a meeting, but on the other hand, meetings are often a uniquely tedious part of the modern workplace; it's similarly bad etiquette to demand that someone listen to information that doesn't concern them or has already been covered. It's rude to be visibly distracted but it's far more rude to just flat-out say, "Hey, listen - there's seriously no need to send me an invite for a meeting where you just read the Powerpoint slides out loud and verbatim. Just send me the presentation, and I'll read it, and it won't take an hour."

Not that that's what you're doing, but that's the standard you're fighting against.

If you want people to not space out during meetings, you need to work to make the meetings as brutally efficient as possible. I know that's probably not the answer you wanted but it's the best solution to the issue you're seeing.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 11:32 AM on March 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

As a freelancer, if I'm only sitting in on a conference call or a Skype call, I'm losing money. True, I might be doing other things (and I like to think I can multi-task really well) but most calls/meetings are just a big waste of my time, esp if everyone else is in an office on speaker and I'm in front of the keyboard. Set an agenda before, email it out or share it on Google docs and keep the meeting short.
posted by Ideefixe at 12:29 PM on March 27, 2012

Remote meetings are incredibly hard to pay attention to. Even when you have no other distractions, it's often hard to hear what other people are saying, or to ask questions at the right time. With most meetings I'd just rather have a handout emailed to me; this goes double for anything I have to dial into.

Here's an idea: make your next meeting about how everyone would prefer these meetings to go. Maybe they'd rather skip the meetings and get a written summary. Maybe they have trouble keeping up with the conversation over the phone. Maybe the meetings are scheduled during their most productive time of the day. Maybe they'd rather not attend the meetings that directly involve them, or maybe they feel like they want more involvement. Send them a questionnaire to fill out and send back before the meeting (questionnaires will get more participation than "think of a couple ideas") and discuss then.

Given the nature of both the meetings and their participants, this sounds a lot like you're trying to herd cats. It sucks. Someone's gotta do it, and it can often lead to resentment on the cat-herder's part when no one else seems to be helping. It might take some of the burden off of you if you asked for a few volunteers to help coordinate the meetings (or email updates or whatever) - this can be especially helpful for regularly scheduled status-update-style meetings, when you can alternate among three or four people.
posted by Metroid Baby at 12:30 PM on March 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

1- I think the direct approach here is best. Start the meeting with [your personal version of] "OK guys, we have a lot to go over here, and it will all go more quickly if we are all paying attention, so I am asking you to put your phones on vibrate and put them away. If you need to take a call or reply to an email, please excuse yourself to the hallway out of respect for everyone in the room. There are notebooks and pens on the table for anyone who needs to take notes."

2- Plan the meeting so that everyone in attendance is there for a reason. If you have a couple of things to go over with subgroup A, have them show up 15 minutes early for a pre-meeting. Then, after the meeting is done, split off into any groups that need splitting and shuffle everyone else out of the room.

3- Use the "parking lot" strategy for digressions and tangents. If one of those things happen, especially if it is something that only involves a sub-group, have them write the topic down on a piece of paper and slide it into an area of the table reserved for that. (or a different color paper) Then, after the presentation is done, go through the things in the parking lot and make sure they got covered, and cover what needs to be covered.
posted by gjc at 3:04 PM on March 27, 2012

Make the meetings as effective as possible. Have an agenda, send any needed documents beforehand. Try timing the meeting. We have 4 minutes to decide which cover to use for the directory. Jane, what do you think? If the meeting is to present information, try sending it by email, then giving just the highlights, and asking for opinions and responses frequently. Try different meeting venues, like google hangouts, where at least they have to have google in the browser, maybe making them less likely to be able to surf. Most of all, have fewer, shorter meetings.
posted by theora55 at 3:39 PM on March 27, 2012

One suggestion I liked from a previous thread on this was to call people out by name before you ask them a question (thus ensuring their full attention to the question), rather than saying their name after the question.

Thus, you say, "Jane: Can you tell me your experiences with the widgetcopters?"

And you do not say, "How have the widgetcopters been, Jane?"
posted by insectosaurus at 8:30 PM on March 27, 2012

Well, I guess in a good way, I've thought it through alreday.

We're using agendas. It's all freelancers. This stuff is very direct to the point; it's not large (3-4 people max.) There's not much fat in these; it's just that they're not staying focused on the task at hand. After awhile, I intentionally will ask someone a pointed question and wait while they get 'caught' not paying attention.

It's not the same group of people in these meetings (we're not an office, just some people working on some projects).

Often there's brainstorming to do; and people who have to make decisions about what part of projects they want to do (or not.) And yes, they get surprised when a deadline comes and goes and they missed it.

It's not my job, nor do I have any desire to babysit them nor send them reminders; I'm just as much of a 'creative' in these situations. I was really hoping for a clever way to clue someone in that they're not present in mind/body.
posted by filmgeek at 4:34 AM on March 28, 2012

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